Alyssa Shah is a sophomore at The Dalton School in New York City. She is passionate about using her technical skills for social good. Alyssa was one of 20 applicants selected to attend Dartmouth Institute for Security, Technology, and Society summer program and one of 30 selected to participate in the National Security Agency and National Science Foundation GenCyber Program, where she received the award for the outstanding team member.
She is a National Center for Women and Information Technology Tristate Award Winner and National Runner-up, United State of Women changemaker scholar, Kode with Klossy scholar, and Health and Wellness Ambassador for the Malcolm Jenkins Foundation. This past summer, Alyssa was recognized by the United Nations Youth Assembly for her work on the UN’s sustainable development goals related to health. Alyssa is a student ambassador for her school, a children’s book reviewer for Bank Street College of Education, a regional ambassador for CyberSensibility, a GirlUp United Nations Foundation community leader, and a presenter for Strong -The Magazine for Girls. She serves on the Congressional Youth Cabinet for Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney and is also on the New York City HRA Youth Leadership Council.
When she’s not busy pursuing these activities, you can find her working on her program to educate teens on substance abuse or on the volleyball court. In the future, Alyssa hopes to inspire other young women to pursue their passions and create technologies that will transform society, making the world a better place.
City where you’re from: New York City
Hobbies: Playing volleyball, painting, baking, and reading.
Favorite quote: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
Hi Alyssa, Glad to have you on Future Sharks. Tell us about The DrugSense Initiative. How did you come up with this idea?
Alyssa Shah: Two summers ago, I was selected to attend the United State of Women conference as a changemaker scholar (1 of 10 selected under the age of 16), where I learned about the vaping epidemic and the war on drugs. After this conference, I started researching the effects of vaping and learned that most teens who vaped did not know about the dangers of vaping, and in fact they thought vaping was harmless and safe. I realized that education was the first step in tackling this problem, but most schools did not have drug awareness programs. I knew that I had to do something to stop the teen vaping epidemic. I created a for the youth, by the youth online drug awareness curriculum with interactive experiences to teach students everything they need to know about vaping and to reduce its devastating effects, and recently received a grant for my program, The DrugSense Initiative.
The DrugSense Initiative (www.drugsenseinitiative.org) is a free online curriculum to teach teens the facts and dangers of vaping. I partnered with middle and high school teachers, pediatricians, and addiction specialists to create the learning modules. My curriculum contains modules and interactive lessons on the brain and its response to nicotine, electronic cigarettes, JUUL, marketing tactics, and advocacy and assistance. I believe that most kids would not have started vaping if they knew how dangerous it was beforehand. By creating engaging content, I believe I can educate those who need it most. With the right balance of research and interesting material such as videos and photos, I believe these experiences can effectively inform both youth and adults about what vaping is and why it’s harmful. Each module includes two takeaway questions to make sure that the information was taught effectively and understood. Housed on an interactive platform by EThreeZone, responses to each question are recorded, and this way I can make sure that the material in my curriculum is being understood. I am driven by the notion that my programing can affect positive change.
How did you promote your company in the early days?
Alyssa Shah: I first started promoting my program by calling schools in the tristate area that did not have drug awareness programs. I knew that if I was able to partner with one school, then more schools would eventually hear about my program and want to use it. I was fortunate to have my program used in one middle school in Westchester, NY and because of its success, two neighboring high schools asked if they could also use my program. My program has been used by more than 400 students who would otherwise not have had access to a drug awareness program. This spring, I will be partnering with 3 more schools and my hope is that as more schools use the curriculum, other schools will also want to use it. I am also recruiting regional DrugSense Initiative ambassadors in different parts of the country and hope that they will be able to spread the message in their areas. I am also using social media to promote our curriculum. Social media allows you to reach large numbers of people in a relatively short time period of time.
How have you been able to grow your business? Go specific.
Alyssa Shah: My program has been successful because the students and schools who have used my curriculum have promoted my curriculum to other students and schools. I have also partnered with pediatricians and addiction specialists and have been able to broaden the reach of my program. Our presence on social media has also driven parents and children to our website and helped broaden our reach.
How is your company different?
Alyssa Shah: The DrugSense Initiative is a unique program because there is simply no other online, interactive, and comprehensive drug awareness educational program like it. It is child-friendly and is meant to teach in a non-confrontational and non-didactic manner. DrugSense offers lesson plans that teachers, students, healthcare practitioners, and parents can easily access and inexpensively reproduce. We are working with multiple partners to disseminate our curriculum to those schools and children who need it most. Vaping is a national concern, but we are still learning new information about it every day. When I first decided to create an online program on this topic, I started researching to see if there were any other programs similar to mine. Since there was no other curriculum specifically designed to teach youth everything they need to know about vaping, I knew that The DrugSense Initiative would have a meaningful impact.
What should an entrepreneur focus on?
Alyssa Shah: I think all entrepreneurs should focus on having a well-developed business plan before they take their project from conception to reality. Having a well-thought out plan will ensure that the business runs seamlessly from its early stages through the time it reaches the marketplace.
What advice do you have for future entrepreneurs?
Alyssa Shah: I created The DrugSense Initiative because I am passionate about health and wellness and want to educate teens about the dangers of vaping. I would advise every entrepreneur to be flexible in the face of adversity and to stick with their passions because ultimately if you are doing what you love, no one can stop you from reaching the stars.
What are some of the best books you’ve ever read?
Alyssa Shah: I’ve been a fan of Michelle Obama’s since she exclaimed, “When they go low, we go high.” I really enjoyed her autobiography, Becoming. Much like Obama, I feel I will never “arrive.” I will continue to learn, adapt, grow, and evolve in my efforts to improve myself and the world around me.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is also one of my favorite books.
Who inspires you?
Alyssa Shah: I am inspired by Julie Carrier, the CEO of Girls Lead Worldwide. I heard Julie Carrier speak last summer at the Girl Up Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. Julie spoke about making healthy and successful choices in a fun and engaging way and was able to inspire everyone in the room. She teaches young women to be proud of who they are and to embrace their potential. During the leadership summit, she spoke about the best advice she had ever received, “Remember your ABC’s (Always Be Confident).” This quote resonated with me because it is not always easy to believe in yourself, especially when something goes wrong or you didn’t meet a goal that you wanted to, but if you are confident in yourself, than others will be confident in you. This is one quote I will always remember because it can be applied in any setting, at any time.
Where do you see yourself and your product in a couple years? What’s your dream?
Alyssa Shah: Even though there has been a lot of publicity about e-cigarettes, teen awareness and education will be important in fighting the vaping epidemic. I hope to spread the word about my project through the Congressional Youth Committee for Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, United Nations GirlUp, and NYC Youth Leadership Council. I am the Health and Wellness Ambassador for The Malcolm Jenkins Foundation and am working to have celebrities endorse my curriculum and share their personal stories about drug abuse. I will also have regional ambassadors who will use my curriculum in their area. By targeting a broad geographic range of schools, I hope that my curriculum will gain momentum as more schools use it across the country and that eventually al youth know about the dangers of vaping.I ultimately hope my company will inspire other girls to pay it forward and to take on an issue that is facing their community.